Crazy Faith Ministries
The passing of former President George H.W. Bush has inspired the vocalization of deep love and appreciation for all this man did. Certainly, in this period of political ugliness, confusion and behavior in general that is and has been less than honorable, recognizing and remembering the dignity of this man has been a breath of fresh air. He truly represented an era where the office of the president was looked at and treated as the high honor it is.
The work he did for this country was impressive – from ending the Cold War without a shot being fired to his decision on how the U.S. would handle the Chinese crackdown against students protesting against their government in a demonstration in Tiananmen Square to his role in the Berlin Wall coming down, it was clear that this was a man who loved his country and was skilled in handling the crises any nation faces on the world stage.
It has been refreshing to hear how he “did what he thought was right,” even going so far as to raise taxes in this nation when he had explicitly promised during his campaign that he would not. We all remember his forceful words, “Read my lips. No new taxes,” and how he broke that promise to save this country’s economy, costing him a second term as president and alienating many in the GOP forever.
He had principles, and it is important for us all to know this. He respected those with whom he disagreed; he believed that patriotism should be placed before party; he did not hobnob with dictators; and though he did great things, he refrained from being a braggart. His principles were noteworthy.
But he had one weakness, which so many people in this country and in the world recognize. He was affected and influenced by racism, and he knew how so many White people lived in fear of Black people – the result of racist thinking – and so he used that fear to win his bid to be president.
As the tributes were coming in after his death, I had to backtrack to make sure his was the campaign during which “Willie Horton” surfaced because nobody was mentioning it and true enough, there it was: that horrible ad with the picture of the Black man who had raped and murdered a White woman while on furlough.
The ad was designed by the Bush handlers; the late Lee Atwater was at least one of its masterminds. Atwater was clear about using race as a weapon to win the election. Times had changed, he said, and Republicans had to use race without being blatant about it, so the campaign would have to use certain words that would indicate to White voters the racial implications of what was being expressed.
Atwater taught how Republicans could win elections based on race without “sounding racist.” It was a part of the “Southern Strategy,” and Bush, for all of his decency and devotion to principles, used that strategy to get into the White House.
I was angry about that ad then, and my soul still roils when I think about it. Everyone in the world knows about America’s sick racism. Though many Americans, White and, unfortunately, Black, criticize even mentioning the fact that racism exists and has had an effect on everything that has happened in this country, it is a fact that White fear based on racist beliefs and teachings can always be used against the American people when a specific goal is in mind – like winning a presidency.
Being unable to resist using an obviously effective tool that further damages the lives and the image of African Americans is as sad as it is real. When all else fails in this country, people fall back on racism and use it, their faith in God and commitment to living principled lives notwithstanding.
The dehumanization of African Americans – a major component of racism – permits racists to distance themselves from owning their behavior (cognitive dissonance) and to decry the use of “the race card,” when they in fact use it regularly and as a matter of course.
There is no doubt that Bush did good things; there is no doubt that he had the capacity to be compassionate and to treat people as the human beings that they were, regardless of class and probably because of race. But his use of the Willie Horton ad to win the presidency means to me, at least, that deep within his soul, he carried the same hatred and contempt for African Americans as the most vocal racist.
That observation doesn’t make him a bad person, but it does illustrate that racism is a weak link in everything America does, and it reveals that few of us can get away from “the race card” after all.
Rev. Dr. Susan K Smith is the founder and director of Crazy Faith Ministries. She is available for speaking. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.